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What to do with your mind when your worries won’t let you sleep



Anna O'Neil - published on 03/28/18

Here are some things you can do in total darkness that will help.

Everyone I know has been there. You’re exhausted, your body is dying to sleep, but your lousy brain is keeping you awake, and not in a fun way. It’s hashing and rehashing an endless string of what-ifs, fears, and regrets. You know you’re only going to be more on edge the next day if you can’t manage to get a good night’s sleep, but that’s just another worry, and it’s not helping you calm your mind down.  

Getting up to read, or worse, checking your phone, only signals to your brain that it’s time to get up. But here are some things you can do in total darkness that will help.

Don’t ignore the worry, but do put it off

Few problems are actually so urgent that you have to jump out of bed and do something about them. Unless your house is actually on fire, give yourself permission to delay finding a solution, just till the morning. This is important — you’re not saying to yourself, “There’s nothing to worry about, everything’s actually fine!” That will just get your brain to try harder to convince you that you should be panicking. Instead, say “If this still seems like a problem in the morning, I’ll address it then.” That way, you don’t have to do the impossible, and talk yourself down, or dismiss your own, possibly legitimate, worries. You’re just putting the problem off, not ignoring it. Of course, nine times out of ten, the worry doesn’t seem as pressing the next morning.

Go through the gratitude alphabet

Name something that you’re grateful for that starts with “A.” It doesn’t have to be something amazing. (My most recent “A” was asparagus — I’d forgotten all about my daughter Anastasia.) Go through the letters, one by one, and don’t rush. Take your time moving from one happy thought to the next. I rarely get past M or N without falling asleep.

Variation: Go through the alphabet, but instead of naming what you’re grateful for, name what you’re good at. It’s even harder, because to fill in all 26 letters, you have to get really creative. Remember, it’s not boasting if it stays in your head.

Recap your day

This one works especially well when you’re stewing in something that went wrong. Is it an argument, a humiliation, something you regret doing, which you keep replaying in your mind? Replay your day, instead. Start from the beginning, and stay detailed — when did you wake up? What did you eat for breakfast? It’s harder than it sounds to dig up memories of just 12 hours earlier, and it usually forces you to put things in perspective. You might end up remembering the good things that happened, which your brain glossed over while it focused on the bad memory.

Be an architect

Build something complicated, something you’d make with a lot of people in mind. Design a park, or a museum, or your family’s dream house. Go from feature to feature, and lovingly get every detail just right. What’s awesome about this game in particular is that you have to keep in mind many different people’s needs, so it can help pull you out of your own head, and help you not to focus so much on your own worries. It also gives your mind a lot to hold on to, as you add details. If you find yourself lying away night after night, then you can pick up where you left off. The continuity makes the project even more fun.

Read more:
Too anxious to fall asleep? 7 bedtime strategies to try

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